Skip to Content

Difference Between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Degree Murder

Difference Between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Degree Murder

The laws are essential to accurately and appropriately classify the weight of a crime and its punishment. The crime can be complicated, and murder is no different. 

In most states, murder is categorized into various degrees based on severity and possible outcomes for convicted people.

First and foremost, a thorough understanding of the varying levels of homicide is essential. Understanding how these crimes are verified is critical to identifying strategies to raise reasonable doubt.

Most states define murder in three-level degrees:

  • First Degree
  • Second Degree
  • Third Degree

Legal terms can be hard to understand for those who have limited knowledge about the law. So to help you understand these terms, here’s a simple definition of each one.

a black wooden gavel
Murder is a crime whether or not you had the intention of doing it.

First-degree murder involves a deliberate intention to kill the victim and plan the act of killing in advance.

By the time that the intention arose at the time and not beforehand, that’s when second-degree murder takes place. Even if the one who committed the crime did not plan or plotted the murder but had the intention to kill the victim falls under this degree.

Third-degree murder is also called manslaughter in most jurisdictions. This murder involves no intent to kill the victim. However, gross negligence caused the death of the victim.

But not all states have these categories of murder. In some states, the severe type of murder crime is called “capital murder.”

This article will discuss the difference between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murders and their punishments. Also, why are these distinctions essential?

Let’s talk about them one by one.

What is First-Degree Murder?

First-degree murder is the highest and most severe form of murder defined in the U.S. legal system.

a person in handcuffs
Intentionally planning to cause one’s death falls under first-degree murder.

It is defined as an unlawful killing led by a deliberate plan in most states. 

It requires that a person (called the defendant) plan and intentionally carry out the killing. It can occur into two categories:

  • Intentional killings or pre-planned (like stalking someone, planning how to kill before murdering them)
  • Felony murder (when someone commits a certain kind of felony and someone else dies in the course of it)

But in order to fall under this degree, certain elements such as willfulness, deliberation, and premeditation should be proven to be established by the prosecutor prior to committing the crime.

In general terms, deliberation and premeditation mean the prosecutor presents the evidence that the defendant has initial intent before executing the plan of murder.  

However, federal law and some states also demand “malice aforethought” as an element.

This category involves brutal planning to kill or massacre more than one person. This degree can also include special situations of additional charges such as:

  • Robbery
  • Kidnapping 
  • Hijacking
  • Rape or assaulting a woman
  • Intentional financial gain
  • Held torture of the extreme kind

The result of first-degree murder can be severe if the perpetrator has committed such crimes before. 

Planning everything differentiates first-degree from second-degree murder; the latter is also committed with the same intention but not considered punishable. 

What is the punishment for First-Degree Murders?

In some regions, death or life imprisonment without parole is the punishment for first-degree murder. 

First-degree is the most severe and the highest form of crime, so it carries severe punishment.

The death penalty is declared in cases:

  • Where additional charges involve along with first-degree murder, such as death that occurred during robbery or rape. 
  • Or when the  defendant is a person sentenced before the murder happened, and the victim was a police officer or a judge who was on duty or when death involved violence.  

Most of the states withhold the punishment of death for first-degree murder defendants convinced of performing a high level of homicide. So, it’s more important to examine the particular state’s law to understand the possible punishment in that state. 

What is Second-Degree Murder?

Second-degree murder is considered when the death happened by way of an act so dangerous it evinces reckless disregard that displays an apparent lack of concern for human life. Or, In simple terms, a murder that is not deliberate.  

a prison cell
Murder committed must reach certain criteria before it can fall under second-degree murder.

For example, a person learns their partner is cheating and having an affair that evoked rage and killed their partner immediately. However, the scenario can be broader than that! 

Beyond doubt, prosecutors need to prove three main elements in second-degree murder:

  • The victim is dead.
  • The defendant performed a criminal act that led to the victim’s death. 
  • The murder occurred by the reckless and dangerous act, which demonstrates the defendant’s mind, depraved regarding human life. 

Deliberation is not an essential element of second-degree murder in most states such as Florida

For example, if a person fires guns to celebrate something in a gathering, and the bullets strike or kill someone, they will be charged with second-degree murder. 

You see, even if no intent of killing is involved doing such a dangerous act recklessly in a crowded and public place could lead to such hazardous results, which shows people’s disregard for other human life. 

What is the punishment for Second-Degree murders?

In second-degree murder, defendants could be sentenced to prison for life. 

Second-degree murder is considered less of a severe crime compared to first degree, so it does not have severe punishment like death.

In first and second-degree murder, the defendant can argue that he kills the victim in self-defense or defense of others. 

Second-degree murder is usually a result of defendants’ controversial actions. However, these voluntary murders are reserved for provocative murder. 

What is Third-Degree Murder?

Third-degree murder is the least severe form of murder that occurs when a dangerous act that’s committed leads to the death of someone. However, no prior intention to kill is involved in this category. 

a police tape
The intent is not one of the elements of third-degree murder.

Third-degree murder only exists in three U.S. states: Florida, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. It has previously been praised in Wisconsin and New Mexico.

To understand third-degree murder, here is an example: If you give or sell illegal drugs to someone and die because they used them, you will be charged with third-degree murder, also called manslaughter. 

What is the punishment for Third-Degree murder?

The defendant convicted for third-degree murder has to carry a heavy fine along with more than 25 years in prison. However, it is defined differently in various states. 

But according to guidelines for sentencing in most states, 12 and half years is recommended for third-degree murder and four years for homicide.

How do First, Second and Third-Degree differ from one another?

They differ in terms of severity, consequences, and the elements involved in the crime.

First-degree murder is considered most severe, where the defendant kills the victim intentionally and deliberately. 

Second-degree murder is involved reckless acts so dangerous that lead to the death of someone. It is not deliberate or pre-planned. 

Third-degree murder is different from the first two because it falls between manslaughter and second-degree murder punishment.

Third-degree murder is also called manslaughter. It is an improvised, spontaneous conducting act that led to the victim’s death. 

The law will consider the elements:

  • Willful (you punch someone and recklessly slaughter them)
  • Compulsory (you push off someone accidentally or unintentionally)

Here’s a quick summary of their difference:

Degrees of Murder What is it? 
First-Degree Murderinvolves a deliberate intention to kill the victim and plan the act of killing in advance.
Second-Degree MurderNot plotted or planned but had intended to kill, i.e., the intention arose at the time, not beforehand.
Third-Degree Murder No intent to kill, gross negligence that causes death, also called manslaughter.
Difference between three degrees of Murders

The most prominent contrast between third-degree murder and the other first two is that it isn’t planned intentionally and doesn’t involve wild negligence for human existence.

Even if you intend only to harm the other person and not kill, you will still be charged with the punishment of third-degree charges. 

For a more visual explanation, have a look at this video:

Can someone commit several degrees of murder?

A person can charged for both 1st-degree murder and 2nd-degree murder; however, he can’t be convicted of both. 

However, both are not mutually exclusive, and a defendant could be charged in the alternative.

For example, someone is convicted for Murder 1 and Murder 2 ( manslaughter and negligent homicide).

In such a case, the jury has been led on both offenses and decided to convict, but those convictions will merge at sentencing. However, the defendant will receive a sentence based upon the more severe crime, and the other crime(manslaughter in this case) will effectively go away.

Wrapping Up: Why is it important to distinguish them?

There is not much difference between first, second, and third-degree murder—however, it’s still important to distinguish them as they restrict the different types. 

For example, if you and your assailant weren’t involved in a fight, then you might get away with second and third-degree murder charges, but not with first-degree murder. 

First-degree murder is different from other types because of two elements:

  • Premeditation

The first degree is also recognized as capital or severe crime because the accused intentionally planned and carried out to kill the other person. 

The main differences are the offense’s rigor, and the severity of the punishment received.

This difference shows we have to be careful when heated up with emotions and avoid performing dangerous acts in public places that can harm someone. 

Click here to view the web story of this article.